Elmore Leonard said: I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

A Follow-Up

Of course, it couldn't end there. Louise Allen has written a response to Julie Bindel's now notorious critique of the genre and Mills & Boon in particular.

Allen writes:
"All Mills & Boon authors, writing for the varied lines - a broad spectrum of contemporary stories as well as the historical novels - aim to meet the fantasies and interests of their readers within parameters they feel comfortable with. My heroes appeal to me - sexy, successful, strong men with a sense of honour and humour. My heroines - independent-minded, resourceful and far from submissive - respond to them in ways a 21st-century reader can identify with. That is not "patriarchal propaganda".

Bindel's words have sparked a fascinating debate all over the (romance) blogging world. In particular, I urge you to read the smart, provocative, thoughtful and challenging comments here, here and here. And here.

Daisy Cummins took the time to respond to my post below, which was very cool of her. Unsurprisingly, many romance writers were upset at Bindel's assertion they were writing misogynistic hate-speech. Go figure. Some readers felt the piece was patronising in its assumption that they were unable tell the difference between reality and fantasy, whilst others were willing to take a more analytical approach to the debate.

I wonder if anyone has approached Bindel with an interview request.

On a related note, on Monday The Guardian printed a letter from one Sam Shuttleworth enquiring:
According to a secondhand bookseller in Oldham, young ladies of Asian heritage can't get enough of Mills and Boon (100 years of heaven or hell?, G2, December 5). Whose opinion of the books, and their readership, does that confirm - Daisy Cummins's or Julie Bindel's?

I don't know what clumsy truths Mr Shuttleworth would like us to draw, but certainly 'young ladies of Asian heritage' form a large part of the M&B readership in the library service I work for. Having said that, as in Oldham, 'young ladies of Asian heritage' are a large customer base full stop.

To conclude, my own foray into the world of Harlequin/ M&B has ground to a halt at page 52 of Lynn Graham's The Petrakos Bride. There's only so much rampant masculinity, scorching black eyes (with the mysterious ability to turn gold at moments of extreme emotional turmoil) and overweening arrogance I can take from my reading material, and I can only assume that the Presents line is not for me.

22 comments:

Laura Vivanco said...

I was assuming that the comment from Sam Shuttleworth was written in the spirit of the character John Shuttleworth since Sam is also from "up north". However, it may well be that that I'm confusing fiction with reality and this really is the letter-writer's true name.

For what it's worth, M&B are popular in India, and I heard recently (from someone who as at the RWA conference) that in India Mills & Boon has 98% brand recognition.

Meriam said...

...in India Mills & Boon has 98% brand recognition.

Blimey. That's impressive.

I did a quick google search and found this. Mills and Boon: an Indian romance.

Niranjana says
I think there’s more to the phenomenon than comfort or curiosity about sex, though. Many of us Indian readers had our love-lives mapped out for us early-on by family; a comfortable arranged marriage was both inevitable and desirable in the eyes of most. A Mills and Boon was perhaps the closest many would get to love-at-first-sight, lust-conquerors-all territory. The latter wasn’t something everyone necessarily wanted, but certainly something that everyone wanted to know more about. And the books were unrealistic, yes, but no more than the average Hindi film…

Although this might be a little pat.

As for Shuttleworth - I haven't a clue!

Jane said...

I'd be interested in your take on the Virgin's Wedding Night by Sara Craven. I'll have a review of it up tomorrow but I'd love to "gift" you the ebook if you are interested. I thought it was a really provocative look at the sexually repressed woman trope.

Laura Vivanco said...

There's been some research on Indian M&B readers. Here's part of the abstract of of Parameswaran, Radhika, 2002. 'Reading Fictions of Romance: Gender, Sexuality, and Nationalism in Postcolonial India', Journal of Communication, 52.4: 832-851:

Young women's fascination for the commodities of Western material culture in imported romance fiction is located in their desire to experience their identities as cosmopolitan, global consumers. In negotiating the boundaries of tradition, Indian women readers construct romance fiction as modern manuals on sexuality that afford them escape from the burdens of preserving the honor of family and community. The contradictory character of women's interpretations of sexuality in Western romance novels highlights the complex dialectic between postcolonial audiences' resistance to and collusion with the hegemony of global culture.

There are a couple more articles on Indian M&B readers in the Romance Wiki bibliography.

Meriam said...

Laura: It sounds fascinating! I've printed out loads of your posts at teachmetonight and the (available) related material for my bedtime reading. All part of my quest to be a more critical/ aware reader of the genre... (we'll see how that works out).

I thought it was a really provocative look at the sexually repressed woman trope.

That would make a nice change :-)

I would love to read it. Thanks, Jane (although if it's too much trouble, I'll get it myself).

Meriam said...

Incidentally, has anyone heard the news about Terry Pratchett? He's been diagnosed with early onset Alzeimer's. He's my favorite author and I feel really, really sad about it.

http://books.guardian.co.uk/news/articles/0,,2226306,00.html

Robin said...

I haven't read Pratchett, but I think it must be horrible to get that diagnosis. How sad.

re. Harlequin Presents, I told Jane today that I'm going to randomly choose 20 relatively recent HPs and read them to see how they rate on the Bindel Patriarchal Propaganda test.

I've read some very interesting HP's, but this will be pretty random in selection, so I'm fascinated to see what I get.

Meriam said...

You know, I was going to do something like that. To be honest, some of Bindel's accusations against M&B kind of echoed my own prejudices and I wanted to do as Laura suggested - take a random sample and read them critically so I could reach my own conclusions. I even had this vague idea of creating a table and having a checklist... but you know, I just finished my first Presents and it was a Herculean task.

I think I'm just going to read a couple and get an idea of the line, but I'll leave it at that. I look forward to your analysis. I really liked what you had to say during this whole discussion re: Bindel, patriarchy, gender, rape, forced seduction... secret babies. Even though I'm totally intimidated by it, the discussion at teachmetonight is fantastic. We probably owe Bindel a huge thanks for getting everyone out and discussing the genre in such a thoughtful and civilised manner.

Laura Vivanco said...

Meriam, why not try a few from different lines? You'll still be doing sampling, but you'd be sampling the variety of lines, not just the variety within one line.

There's always a lot of attention paid to the Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Moderns, but it might be that other lines suit your tastes better. I know that although I've found some Moderns I've liked, on the whole they're less likely to appeal to me than other lines. The Romance line, for example, tends to involve a lot less conflict between the hero and heroine, which makes it more comfortable for me, and there are far fewer sheiks/billionaires/tycoons. Or there are the medicals, the historicals, the intrigue line (romantic suspense) etc. The Modern Extras/Modern Heats are also quite different in tone from the Moderns (though on the M&B website they're listed with the Moderns, and you can only tell what they are if you look very closely at the covers).

In fact, if you want to get an idea of the "feel" of each line, you could take a look at the writers' guidelines. Not all the lines are sold in the UK, though.

We probably owe Bindel a huge thanks for getting everyone out and discussing the genre in such a thoughtful and civilised manner.

Yes, it's been very interesting, and I'm looking forward to the experiment we're planning, with the simultaneous reviewing/analysis of Louise Allen's novel.

Meriam said...

Meriam, why not try a few from different lines? You'll still be doing sampling, but you'd be sampling the variety of lines, not just the variety within one line.

That might be fairer. Although Presents provide the most fodder for arguments like Bindel's (aren't they also the most popular?), I know from the two or three Romance novels I've read in the past that they are more to my taste. I haven't read any Modern Extras, or Medicals.

It's one way to spend the Christmas break.

Yes, it's been very interesting, and I'm looking forward to the experiment we're planning, with the simultaneous reviewing/analysis of Louise Allen's novel.

I'm really excited about this, too. It is rather stupendous. Three behemoths of the on-line romance community coming together in a reviewing extravaganza!

Laura Vivanco said...

Although Presents provide the most fodder for arguments like Bindel's (aren't they also the most popular?)

Yes, it is the best selling line, as far as I know, and with their initial premises often including revenge, blackmail and virgins they do "provide the most fodder for arguments like Bindel's", but of course part of Bindel's argument was that all M&B romances are the same, and if you move away from the lines that have words like "revenge" in the titles it's much easier to contradict Bindel's assessment of the plot themes. It's possible to contradict her with regards to the Moderns too, of course, but if they're not to your taste, and finishing even one is a "Herculean task," you might have more fun with other lines.

Three behemoths of the on-line romance community coming together in a reviewing extravaganza!

I wonder if the TMT behemoth is like a very large pantomime horse. I'm a bit worried I'm going to be the back legs which disappear off in the wrong direction, or which fail to reach the stage at all. Hopefully I'll find something interesting to say. It's tricky, because sometimes inspiration doesn't strike until a few days after I've finished a novel, and for some books it never strikes at all. Oh well, the challenge will do me good. It'll be like being back at university and having to find something to say in response to an essay question.

Meriam said...

...It's possible to contradict her with regards to the Moderns too, of course, but if they're not to your taste, and finishing even one is a "Herculean task," you might have more fun with other lines..

I'm fascinated by Presents, but I found my one very difficult to read, particularly the first half. I will follow your suggestion.

I wonder if the TMT behemoth is like a very large pantomime horse. I'm a bit worried I'm going to be the back legs which disappear off in the wrong direction, or which fail to reach the stage at all.

I don't think there's any danger of that.

Reading your articles and the related posts made me nostalgic for my university days. Except, I rarely studied anything as interesting as romance novels - if only I had; I think I spent more of my final year reading them than attending lectures... not good.

Tumperkin said...

I just spent a while skimming Teach Me Tonight (there's been more posting and commenting there in the seven days I've been away than in the seven months before that!) but have finally given up. It's just too much to take in!

Are you going to read the Barbarian King's Virgin Slave (or whatever it's called) and participate in the TMT/SBTB/DA thing?

I must admit that the Petrakos Bride is really dreadful - in fact the last three or four Lynne Grahams have not been great but LG has put some great books out under the Presents line. If you can stomach ordering secondhand ones on Amazon, I would recommend The Spanish Groom, The Greek's Chosen Wife, Rafaello's Mistress...

Laura Vivanco said...

Thanks for the reassurance, Meriam.

Sorry, Tumperkin, I promise to post less for what's left of the month!

Meriam said...

Are you going to read the Barbarian King's Virgin Slave (or whatever it's called) and participate in the TMT/SBTB/DA thing?

Yes, I am! I ordered it on Friday night ("only 4 copies left in stock") and felt very amused about the whole thing. Louise Allen must feel as though she's hit the jackpot. Also, if there's enough hype, maybe there'll be a follow up piece with some of the participants - actual readers of the genre, not just uninformed critics and writers. That's why I'm so excited that the SB, DA and TMT gang are doing this: they represent some of the most thoughtful and articulate commentary of the genre.

Eh, does that make sense?

What about you? Joining the bandwagon?

I must admit that the Petrakos Bride is really dreadful...

Yeah, but I could see hints of what made her good: she has a sense of humour and there is something appealing about her simple, down to earth heroines. But The Petrakos Bride was terrible. No escaping it. I started taking notes fifty pages in, just copying bits that were particularly awful, and I have pages of stuff that could back up every claim Bindel made.

... but LG has put some great books out under the Presents line.

I'd like to read some (Also Betty Neels and Charlotte Lamb). I think I'm going to haunt second hand bookstores (they have mountains of M&B) and find some of these gems.

I promise to post less for what's left of the month!

Please don't! It's taking up way too much of my time, and I get deep furrows in my brow as I try to follow a particularly convoluted thread of reasoning in the commentary, but it's good fun.

Tumperkin said...

No Laura - don't do that! My giving up was because I was reading it at 11.30pm (and on a Saturday night! How sad am I?)

Laura Vivanco said...

Tumperkin, given that I'm not just reading but posting to the blog at that time of night, what does that make me? ;-)

And I was really only joking when I replied that I'd post less at TMT. Or rather, I probably will post less, but it's not because of anything you or Meriam have said, and only because it's coming up for Christmas and I need to do holiday-ish things and also write my response to Virgin Slave, Barbarian King (fingers crossed Amazon gets it to me soon!) and there's no way we (Sarah, Eric and I) could keep up that rate of posting on a long-term basis.

RfP said...

... but LG has put some great books out under the Presents line.

I'd like to read some (Also Betty Neels and Charlotte Lamb).


I'll be curious to hear your reactions. I've actually read a number of Betty Neels--her books are almost the only Harlequin/M&Bs I've tried in the last decade. My flight from category romance is partly because Hqn Presents is all that I see in the shops and I'm really put off by the line's current marketing. But that's not all of it. I read some excellent category romances years ago, so I do know the marketing can be deceptive. Unfortunately the titles and cover copy have got more and more off-putting, and the few I've tried have been much like your Lynn Graham experience.

Meriam said...

I just finished a Susan Napier (Price of Passion) and it was surprisingly good, considering it belonged to the Pregnant Mistresses line. You couldn't make it up.

It's the titles and tone of the books that put me off, too. Not only put me off, but piss me off. I have "Blackmailed into the Italian's bed," "The Billionaire's Scandalous Marriage" and "The Greek Tycoon's Pregnant Wife" in my tbr pile. Jesus.

The old school writers interest me. A lot of readers have a nostalgic attitude to them, and I get the feeling they might have been better in terms of craft and character...?!

I think I will dig around in some old bookstores.

Laura Vivanco said...

I'm not nostalgic because I hadn't read any until a few years ago. I've read a lot of the M&B historicals from the 90s onwards, and then Romance/Tender and Modern from about 2000 onwards.

What I am is curious. I've been trying to get hold of M&Bs from the 70s, 80s and 90s to get a feel for them and if the were "better in terms of craft and character." So far, I'm really not sure. I'd need to read a lot more of them.

So, to paraphrase King Herod (seems appropriate given the time of year), when ye have found good ones, can you bring me word again, that I may come and read them also?

RfP said...

The old school writers interest me. A lot of readers have a nostalgic attitude to them, and I get the feeling they might have been better in terms of craft and character...?!

I think some of the writers themselves (esp. Betty Neels) were very nostalgic. And in some cases I get the sense they may have been nostalgic for a past that never was. Rather like the old sweet Regencies--many of those strike me as nostalgic for a mythical setting.

I'm not sure whether those older M&Bs were really better crafted. I have some favorites from the '80s-90s, including at least one Susan Napier as I recall. (Most of my favorites were set in Oz/NZ--though that's not necessarily what I love about them.) But there may well have been many like your Petrakos Bride.

Meriam said...

So, to paraphrase King Herod (seems appropriate given the time of year), when ye have found good ones, can you bring me word again, that I may come and read them also?,

Sure. I remember reading about one on the DA boards called 'Vampire Lover' by Charlotte Lamb.

As Sandra Schwab put it

The jaw-dropping stuff happened during the sex scene: heroine [handcuffs] hero to bed — against his will! — and proceeds to have sex with him, even though he makes it clear he doesn’t want it to happen this way. And after her orgasm, she wriggles away, even though the poor guy hasn’t yet … er … finished. Off she goes and leaves him bound to the bed for the whole night.

I want to read crazy stories like that!